Artists say the removal of graffiti murals is more than just cleanup; it stamps out a tradition of public space reclamation
Part two of a two-part series. Read Part one here.
Renowned Albuquerque artist and graffiti writer Mike (Ipiotis) 360 doesn't like blank walls; they play a part in creating a docile people. "Their mind is going to be starved, their eyes are going to be starved for art," he says. "They're going to be much more pliable and more susceptible to our advertising artwork, because they're not having any artwork of their own."
Maybe that sounds abstract, dramatic, but Mike Ipiotis isn't the only guy to make the color-psychology connection. When he's teaching art in juvenile correctional facilities, he finds the walls have a certain tone, one that promotes calm and pliability. "When I'm painting a wall, I'm maybe not thinking about specific psychology, but I am thinking about uplifting my people's mental state." Ipiotis is responsible for murals all over town, the tallest perhaps is the building visible from I-25 heading north from the airport, which includes a portrait of his grandfather.
He teaches the children he works with that everything is impermanent. Still, that philosophy doesn't mean he was ready to see the mural on the Amigos y Amigas building in his South Broadway neighborhood, the result of a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, painted over. Ipiotis and fellow muralist Lonnie Anderson secured the grant with the help of Shelle Luaces of the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
The organizers say the mural was significant for many reasons, not the least of which was the participation of two of the grandfathers of graffiti, Phase 2 and Coco 144 from New York. The project was designed as a class. Anderson, once an advertiser for big-time companies such as Nike, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, taught the students tactics used by agencies to spread their ads. The talked about ad placement, the art of putting your work in places where it will reach your audience. At the National Hispanic Cultural Center, the students learned to start blogs, scan images, map out the mural and size it to scale on computers. The graffiti giants from New York—Phase founded the arrow style; Coco was the first writer to use the crown—came down to talk about the reclamation of public space and to add their own rarely seen hand-styles to the wall.
Now the years-old collaborative homage is gone, along with other intricate works that were painted over in the last few months [Re: News Feature, "White Wash," May 10-16]. "I'm really disappointed," says Anderson.
The crew never expected the results of the six-month teaching effort to be permanent, forgoing enamels and long-lasting paints for acrylics and spray. "What we use is very much temporary," says Anderson, "just like us." It's one of Ipiotis' teaching principals: This mural is no more final on the Earth than you. That said, Ipiotis is an obsessive touch-up artist, says Anderson, always painting and repainting his work. Nothing is ever done. That's why he finds it difficult to fathom the reasoning the Amigos y Amigos Community Center gave for wiping out the mural. Kedrick Grandberry, who works for the center, says the wall was being tagged with gang graffiti and Amigos had to call the city once a week to come paint over some part of it. Eventually, a month or two ago, the center decided to paint over the whole thing.
But for Anderson, that reasoning doesn't hold water. For one thing, Ipiotis knows every writer in his neighborhood, which the muralist calls "The Styx." For another, Anderson can't imagine Ipiotis wouldn't touch it up as often as necessary, given his perfectionist nature.
Ipiotis says the coverup is part of an age-old disrespect for the medium. Never mind that one of his works is part of a permanent collection in the Smithsonian or that he pulls down National Endowment for the Arts moneys, the choice of materials brands him as part of a collection of angry kids who scribble in public spaces. Went, the muralist behind a 150-yard-long wall in the North Valley that was also painted over in the last couple months, says youngsters tag for two reasons: ego and attention. His brother Sofa says in his younger days, it had nothing to do with gangs or territory. "I could write all over this world," he says. "At first, you're a vandal, but you grow out of vandalism to where you get all this style and evolve into some sick artist."
An artist unlike the kid who climbed above northbound I-25 a couple weeks ago, clinging to the inches-wide rafter of an overpass, to write his name. Mark Sandoval, who's job it is to wipe out tags within 24 hours of their arrival, moves a cherry-picker into place, paint-roller in hand. Cars rush by at freeway speeds. Once back on the ground and in the safety of his truck, he says he has no idea why people would go to such extremes to tag. "It's everywhere," he says, "everywhere. You get graffiti on the freeway. You get it in Tanoan. It's here to stay."
Maybe Coco and Phase came close to the answer with what they told the students planning the mural four years ago. Anderson heard their message, painted in the early days on subway trains, as a statement to the public. "This is owned by you, owned by the public," he says. "The only way they could express that these things are public spaces was to deface them with writing."
Until a couple weeks ago, the National Hispanic Cultural Center never had a graffiti problem. "It's a hard issue for us," says Luaces, who helped Ipiotis and Anderson get the grant for their mural and class. "Tagging public property, which of course belongs to the public, is very problematic. I think that has to be addressed. But I don't think we should shut down creativity for everyone." The value of what's been erased from the wall around Amigos y Amigas, says Ipiotis, is more than monetary. "They damaged these youth who put all of this effort into something that was beautiful in their community."
After Anderson's initial shock at the discovery that the artwork was gone, he began looking for a silver lining. "That's a good rally cry for some of the kids we work with. They know it's important, that they need to get back out there and paint." If you want to put your message out there, he says, it's your responsibility. "It's a struggle every day."
Ipiotis has no plans to change his methodology, to keep track of paperwork or contracts that might give him legal standing to challenge the obliteration of his work. Still, he can't help but feel at odds with bureaucracy, one that values faceless, genderless paintings of people drowning in seaweed (like the image on the northeast corner of Second Street and Central Downtown) over specific cultural work. "Anything I say that I feel from my heart is the direct opposite of what the city and most of the machine is trying to do," he says. "I'm just trying to exist."
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